A woman wearing a backpack walks on a trail through a forest.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, outdoor activities surged, creating an opportunity for outdoor equipment companies to reach a new audience. — Moosejaw

Since its founding in 1992, Michigan-based Moosejaw has positioned itself as an inclusive outdoor specialty retailer. With its irreverent ads and “don’t take yourself too seriously” mantra, it sought to be as welcoming to first-time campers and hikers as it was to seasoned experts.

Three years ago, the company was acquired by Walmart, the country’s largest retailer, giving Moosejaw the ability to reach out to new outdoor enthusiasts on a mass-market scale.

Broadening the base of outdoor consumers by promoting diversity, inclusivity, affordability and education is the way for both Moosejaw and the entire outdoor industry to grow, Eoin Comerford, CEO of Moosejaw and general manager of Outdoor for Walmart e-commerce, told CO—.

“There is this new generation of potential outdoor enthusiasts. We view it as an opportunity for Moosejaw, and for the industry, to embrace these new folks,” Comerford said.

“If you want to just do hiking or car camping or snowshoeing, that’s great, but if you want to get further into the outdoors and go overlanding or want to go backpacking, we’re here for that too.”

Incubating startups, adding minority-owned brands to woo diverse shoppers

Moosejaw has launched a number of initiatives to attract more diverse customers and promote inclusivity, such as expanding its merchandise mix and adding programs to support minority-owned outdoor brands.

In May, Moosejaw and Walmart unveiled Lithic, a backpacking and hiking equipment brand, and Allforth, an outdoor apparel brand with an extended size range. The brands were designed, according to Walmart and Moosejaw, to offer high-performance quality at more affordable prices. Both brands are available at Moosejaw.com and Walmart.com and are being rolled out in Walmart stores on a pilot basis.

 A group of friends roasts marshmallows around a metal firepit. They're sitting in foldable chairs in a forest clearing. A large tent is set up in the background.
Moosejaw wants to cater to outdoor enthusiasts, who the company's CEO believes includes "everyone who loves the outdoors." — Moosejaw

Moosejaw also recently announced the Moosejaw Outdoor Accelerator, an incubator program for startup outdoor brands that will be focused on helping to grow companies with founders from underrepresented groups, or that are working to make outdoor participation more inclusive.

And this year, Moosejaw is preparing to launch a Gear Wizard campaign that will allow customers to ask questions or engage in video calls and product demonstrations with Moosejaw store experts around the country.

Car camping fuels outdoor sports boom

The Moosejaw inclusivity push comes with the growth of outdoor sports, particularly car camping, a category sometimes viewed as “outdoors for amateurs” by more intense backpackers, climbers and mountaineers.

But car camping, Comerford said, often is an experience that can lead to first-time campers becoming avid outdoor enthusiasts.

“Car camping really is the gateway to the outdoors,” he said. Typically, car campers have bought their tents and coolers at mass retailers like Walmart, which, he noted, sells more tents than the rest of the specialty outdoor industry combined. Moosejaw, he said, wants to embrace the car camper and introduce them to a greater range of outdoor activities.

There is this new generation of potential outdoor enthusiasts. We view it as an opportunity...to embrace these new folks.

Eoin Comerford, CEO of Moosejaw and general manager of Outdoor for Walmart e-commerce

“Unfortunately, there are a lot of barriers for people to make that step,” Comerford said. “Either the product is not available in places like Walmart, or it's not presented to those folks.”

The Lithic equipment line, for one, is intended “to reach a different audience that doesn’t typically come into an outdoor specialty store,” he said.

During the pandemic, car camping has surged, along with other outdoor activities.

A 2020 report by campgrounds operator Kampgrounds of America, Inc. (KOA) predicted accelerated growth in first-time campers due to the pandemic. One-third of leisure travelers who hadn’t camped previously said they now are interested in camping as an outdoor activity.

According to KOA, the percentage of non-white camper households more than doubled between 2012 and 2018, to 31%. In 2018, for the first time, the majority of new campers—51%—were people of color.

The NPD Group, which tracks retail spending, reported in May that sales of camping, RV and road trip equipment were up double and triple digits this spring. Camp sets surged 119%, hammocks spiked 103% and tent sales rose 30%.

Bumps along the way

The Moosejaw-Walmart alliance has hit a few bumps since the mass merchant bought the then–10-store chain for $51 million in 2017. The outdoor industry hadn’t completely embraced the partnership.

In 2018, when Walmart added a Moosejaw-curated “Premium Outdoor Section” to its Walmart.com website, specialty retailers protested and brands demanded that their products be removed from the site. That section was dropped, and Moosejaw continues to sell premium brands on its own website.

Comerford said the company decided a “premium” online selection on Walmart.com was contrary to Moosejaw’s inclusivity goal.

 Headshot of Moosejaw CEO Eoin Comerford.
Moosejaw CEO Eoin Comerford heads a brand built on irreverence and inclusivity. — Moosejaw

“We’ve gone to more of an activity-based approach, where if you’re looking for backpacking, you’ll find backpacking brands; if you’re looking for climbing, you’ll find climbing brands; if you’re looking for car camping, you’ll find car camping brands; but it isn’t this concept of premium, which we felt smacked of elitism,” he said.

Moosejaw has opened two new stores since it was acquired by Walmart: A Bike & Snow store in Birmingham, MI, that specializes in bikes in the warm months and skis in the winter, and a climbing-focused store in Olathe, KS, located next to a climbing gym.

A brand built on fun and irreverence

Since its founding in 1992, Moosejaw made being “the most fun outdoor retailer on the planet” its corporate mission. It was known for its wacky ad campaigns and irreverent tone. Its delivery trucks had “Driver carries less than $50 and is fully naked” printed on the back doors.

Moosejaw this year changed its mission to “be the outdoor enthusiast’s most loved gear shop,” Comerford said. Enthusiast, he said, includes everyone who loves the outdoors.

“We’re going to welcome everybody into the fold, everybody under the tent, both literally and figuratively,” he said. “And get everybody outdoors.”

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Published January 19, 2021